By Henry Ehrlich
Consumption of large quantities of cured meat is considered a risk factor for many diseases, including type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and cancer. Now we can add asthma to the list. A paper published in the journal Thorax, and reported by Medical News Today, was taken from over 20 years of data collected by the French Epidemiological study on the Genetics and Environment of Asthma (EGEA). 971 patients ate an average of 2.5 servings of cured meat per week. “Once other factors were controlled – smoking, regular physical activity, age, sex, and educational attainment – those who ate the most cured meats were 76 percent more likely to have experienced worsening asthma symptoms than those who ate the lowest amount of cured meats.”
It stands to reason that any chemicals potent enough to preserve meat, which is what curing does, after all, would be potent enough to affect many tissues throughout the human body. Spices, which are curing agents themselves, react with receptors in the lungs as well as on the tongue.
The findings were particularly galling (or should I say Gaulling?) as this study was done in France, home of cured meats that are actually worth eating frequently, not to mention a great health care system. To gain more insight into the connection between cured meat and asthma, I reached out to a couple of experts.
First, Dr. Peter K. Smith (@ProfPeteSmith), who recently spoke to us about the false alarm hypothesis, which posits that food chemistry interacts with the immune system to produce food allergies; high levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) fool the immune system and mobilize the response evolved to eliminate dying cells so they won’t fester and cause infection.
Dr. Smith writes: “Pork tends to be high in AGEs to begin with and smoking the meat increases them. In addition, nitrites and sulfites induce oxidative stress.”
Is there anything we can do to ameliorate these effects? “Garlic (active molecule allicin) and chili (capsaicin) hit a TRPV1 receptor,” Smith says. “Allicin also hits another receptor called TRPA1, which is in the upper airways and also on enterochromaffin cells at the base of the villi of the gut along with the T2R receptors (which signal bacterial and other chemical threats). Garlic is an anti-oxidant and anti-AGE forming product as well.”
Those who consume most of their cured pork in the form of breakfast bacon and sausage can at least take some reassurance, according to Smith, “Orange juice (fresh) also seems to reduce AGEs and oxidative stress.” To which he adds a last point that is probably mostly relevant to the French at breakfast time, “but so does a good red wine.”
My other expert is Richard Ehrlich (@RichardEhrlich), well-known in the UK as a food writer and author of a number of excellent cookbooks including The Lazy Cook, The Green Kitchen, and The Perfect—notable in the family tradition for their expert content, wit, and disappointing sales. I asked him for a strategy to make the most of a limited diet of cured-meat.
He writes: “For me, cured pork is one of the primary food groups. I can’t imagine life without it. Dean Martin said he felt sorry for teetotalers because ‘When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.’ I don’t need cured pork every day, but a week without it is a grim prospect.
“If you’re concerned about your intake of cured meat, follow my three principles. First: buy high quality. There is no point in wasting your nitrite allowance on industrial bacon or hot dogs that taste, as Homer Simpson memorably put it, only of hog anus. Second: eat these wonderful delicacies in small servings. You need just a few wafer-thin slices to get full enjoyment. Third: eat slowly, and think about the flavor; don’t treat it as a snack that you eat without even noticing. That’s what potato chips were invented for.
“The greatest source of cured sausages is France: saucisses, saucissons, and the like (though Italian salami is no slouch, of course). For hams and cured products made from smaller cuts of meat, Spain and Italy are the champions. The greatest ham on earth is jamón ibérico bellota from Huelva, in southern Spain. If you want something smaller, an Italian coppa (aka capocollo), preferably a coppa piacentina from Emilia-Romagna, is your best friend. A few thin slices a week? I don’t think that’s going to be too much. At least I hope not. If it is, I’m in trouble.”